Continuing the sessions at a seminar where we are considering how Christians across various denominations might respond to the encyclical of Pope Francis
Professor Quentin Grafton, from the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy at the ANU, spoke about water: the need to provide water and to ensure the sustainable management of water resources and sanitation services, for all human beings.
Currently there are 2.1 billion people without access to safely managed drinking water and 4.5 billion people without access to safely managed sanitation services. Well over 4 billion people experience lack of access to a safe water supply on a periodic basis. We westerners take for granted our continuing supply of clean water and flushing toilets; we are in a highly privileged situation.
Around 700 children are dying EVERY DAY from diarrhoea, linked to unsafe drinking water. That’s already an unacceptable situation—an immediate challenge to the way that we manage water supply and sanitation services.
Yet, our future food production is imperilled by the steady reduction in water in underground aquifers in so many places around the world. We are making the problem worse, not addressing the underlying issue.
Prof. Grafton said that the claim, “it’s just the drought”, totally misrepresents the situation that we are facing in Australia. Irrigation takes a steady supply,of water, but as there is a steady decline in input, so the residual water available to “the environment” (and our consummated usage) declines—at an alarming rate. Our federal policy makers appear to be resolutely deaf to these facts.
Water Justice is what is needed. This entails the fair and just distribution of water; a recognition of multiple values, not just market values; full participation by all people in decision-making relating to water; and the development of long-term sustainability.
Laudato si’ paragraphs 30 and 31 affirm that access to safe drinking water is a basic human right, and this right will be crucial in securing the future of humanity.
30. Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. This debt can be paid partly by an increase in funding to provide clean water and sanitary services among the poor. But water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world but also in developing countries which possess it in abundance. This shows that the problem of water is partly an educational and cultural issue, since there is little awareness of the seriousness of such behaviour within a context of great inequality.
31. Greater scarcity of water will lead to an increase in the cost of food and the various products which depend on its use. Some studies warn that an acute water shortage may occur within a few decades unless urgent action is taken. The environmental repercussions could affect billions of people; it is also conceivable that the control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century
Prof. Grafton said that our commitment to one another means that we need to choose to stand in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable in the present, and to ensure a future for generations to come. This entails truth—humility—respect—wisdom—honesty—love—bravery (these are “the seven grandfathers, as articulated by an indigenous group in North America; see https://www.nhbpi.org/seven-grandfather-teachings/)
He ended by quoting St Francis of Assisi: “Start by doing what is necessary; then do what is possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
Then, Prof. John Williams of the ANU (and the Uniting Church) spoke about food and clothing. He began by declaring: “What you eat and what you wear, has more impact on the creation than anything else you do.” We can see the impact on our current lifestyle in this diagram:
Agriculture has a huge impact on our biodiversity; it changes land use and impacts the supply of fresh water; it disturbs the valuable nitrogen and phosphorous cycles of the planet. We. Are choices about our agricultural practices; those choices are based on our values. Our faith feeds into the development of those values.
The projected increase in demand for all foods is 102%; that will require changes to our current practices. Achieving real sustainability in food production means going beyond an approach that simply minimises environmental impacts. That means a global transition, with significant social and ecological changes. There are powerful forces opposing the changes required. There is also indifference amongst far too many policy makers.
The vision that Prof. Williams presented, is for sustainable governance and management of ecosystems, natural resources and earth system processes, to ensure we are operating within a safe place globally.
His closing words were: “The creation, as a whole, is indifferent to the wellbeing of any particular individual person living within that creation. God, however, is a creative, loving God, who has joined with us within the creation and has an intimate interest, with us, in solving these issues.”